William Cornysh 'senior'


It was long believed that there was only one composer named William Cornysh active during the Tudor age. The songs attributed to that composer in the collection known as XX Songes (London, 1530), are unquestionably from the pen of the early Tudor poet, musician and businessman, William Cornysh, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal who died in 1523. This same person is also probably responsible for no fewer than 18 secular songs in the so-called Fayrfax and Henry VIIl manuscripts. It has hitherto been assumed that this same Cornysh is the William Cornysh whose Latin compositions appear in the Eton Choirbook. David Skinner has, however, convincingly argued the case that there was not one William Cornysh, but two, and that it was the older man who is the composer of the sacred works. While the conjecture is not generally accepted, it seems convincing, and is followed here.1

William Cornysh 'senior', presumably the father of 'junior,' was Informator choristarumat St Peter's Abbey, Westminster, in the 1480s, and enjoyed a prosperous retirement in and around Westminster until his death in 1502. Based on the inclusion of a Magnificatby Cornysh in the Caius Choirbook, Skinner has argued convincingly that it was Cornysh 'senior,' who became a member of the Fraternity of St Nicholas (or the London Guild of Parish Clerks) in 1480, who is most likely to be associated with the other composers in that collection, namely Fayrfax, Ludford, Turges, Prentes and Pasche, all of whom were members of the Guild. William Cornysh 'junior', Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, never became a member of the Guild.

Further evidence is furnished by the fact that the Magnificatby Prentes that is copied in the Caius Choirbook is actually a reworking of Cornysh's setting. As Prentes died in 1514 it would be fair to suggest that his Magnificat was composed no later than the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century, while Cornysh's setting seems to come from a much earlier generation, possibly even from the 1480s. Of the two musicians known to us as William Cornysh, both appear to have originated from Westminster, where the family name occurs frequently in the churchwardens' accounts of St Margaret's from the late fifteenth century (Cornysh junior seems to have been based in London and Kent during his adult years). The earliest musical reference to William Cornysh senior is from 1479, when he became Instructor of the Choristers of the Lady Chapel choir at Westminster Abbey, though he was probably attached to the Abbey in some capacity before this time. It is not known where Cornysh was employed after 1491, when he seems to have relinquished his post at the Abbey, but there is evidence to suggest that he was still musically active at this time and certainly a resident of Westminster. From 1485 Cornysh senior rented rooms from the warden of the Chapel of St Mary (the Lady Chapel) at the rate of 40s per annum. An indenture dated April 8, 1489, for what was possibly a different property, shows that by that time Cornysh was living in the Sanctuary near the north door of the Abbey in a three-storey tenement, which included a parlour with chambers above and a vaulted cellar. The property was rented to Cornysh at the greatly reduced rate of 20s per year (normally 53s 4d) in consideration of his good service to the Abbey. The lease was confirmed on March 29, 1491 in a document which describes Cornysh as 'Gentleman', and also mentions his wife, Joanna. He is reported as listed as a Gentleman of the King's Chapel 1493-1502.

It is possible that Cornysh remained in the service of the Abbey after this time, at least in a part-time capacity. On November 8, 1499 he received an annual pension of eight marks, which was to be paid twice yearly at Christmas and on the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. William and Joanna lived within the Sanctuary for the rest of their lives. The leasehold remained in William's name until 1507, so it appears that Joanna continued to reside there some five years after the death of her husband.

Cornysh senior seems also to have played an active part in the life of the parish. Unfortunately, there are no references to him in the St Margaret's churchwardens' accounts for music books, but in 1499 the parish received 4d from 'Cornysshes wyffe for a Reward of stuffe for to Synge masse'. William Cornysh's death is recorded in 1502 in the register of the Fraternity of St Nicholas, and in the same year he was buried in the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster. His will does not survive but it is clear from the churchwardens' accounts that he bequeathed money and gifts to the parish church. In 1503 6s 8d was received from 'William Cornyssh wyffe for the bequeste of hyr husband', and in the following year 'a banner clothe of the armes of ynglond and of Spane for the best crose' (presumably a tapestry which had come into William Cornysh's hands after the Aragon wedding) was bequeathed to the church by a 'Master Cornyshe.'

A Partial William Cornysh 'senior' Discography   |   IV M: England Through 1635   |   Latin Church Music 1460-1575: The Composers

1.See D. Skinner, 'William Cornysh: Clerk or Courtier?', The Musical Times (May 1997) pp.5-12. Return to Text